03/29/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hail Mary Mudslinging

Last Monday, I spent Martin Luther King Day at the DuSable Museum of African American History on Chicago's South Side. While perusing the exhibits, I came across a lifelike, robotic Harold Washington seated in an office modeled after his city hall digs while he served as Mayor of Chicago from 1983-1987. In separate segments he speaks about the racially divisive campaign that ultimately elevated him into office, his tumultuous tenure as mayor during the so-called "Council Wars" period, and most strangely, his untimely death.

It was in this light that I viewed the latest attack ad to surface in the brutal battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Illinois. Pat Quinn, the incumbent, has racked up endorsements from prominent African-American elected officials in recent weeks, with Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. headlining the list. Quinn also accused his opponent, Comptroller Dan Hynes, of standing in the way of Barack Obama's campaign for U.S. Senator in 2004 when he ran in a competitive primary where the eventual president prevailed.

Hynes fired back in a big way with an ad that resurrected Mayor Washington from his grave, a reprisal in many ways similar to my experience at DuSable. The ad spliced clips from a 1987 Washington interview where he reflected upon the recent firing of then city revenue director Pat Quinn. He labeled Quinn as a "totally and completely undisciplined" person whose actions "almost created shambles in that department." Washington goes on to say that Quinn's appointment was "perhaps (his) greatest mistake in government."

Harsh words about Quinn, and a risky ploy by his opponent Hynes. Does the ad represent a "game change" in this late hour of the campaign? Only time will tell, with the primary a mere six days away and the latest polls showing Hynes closing in on Quinn and within the margins of error. The larger issue that I would like to address in the balance of this post is the greater context of negative advertising, and specifically those ads that invoke race as a wedge between candidates and votes. In the process, I will point to Hynes' motivating factors in generating this controversial and decisively negative ad.

Campaign conduct, and specifically televised advertising, was identified as one of five key factors that contribute to a civically disengaged populace in a 2008 McCormick Foundation report titled Civic Engagement in our Democracy. Modern day political advertising campaigns are increasingly dominated by negative and comparative ads, the latter focusing on opponents' records, advocacy, and character, and difficult to distinguish from the former. Emotive images, voiceovers, and music tend to dominate these productions, and the opposition feels compelled to run equally "emotive" and "demagogic" responses, as the unanswered negative ad is often accepted as truth.

In the end, the impulse to vote is dampened, especially among weak partisans. While campaign consultants are paid hefty incomes to hoist their candidates to victory, all of the electorate loses as our perception of politics is permanently tainted.

Negative advertising with a racial component only heightens these tensions, but it is certainly not without precedent. The infamous Willie Horton ad generated by supporters of Republican President George H. Bush in 1988 against his opponent, Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, dealt a damaging blow by depicting the prison furlough of a black inmate who went on a crime spree, capitalizing on racial fears associated with rampant crime.

A lesser known 1990 ad in the reelection campaign of Republican Senator Jesse Helms in North Carolina explicitly invoked race. Dubbed the "white hands" ad, it tells the story of a white job candidate who was the "victim" of affirmative action policies supported by the Democratic nominee, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gannt, an African-American himself, and opposed by his white opponent, Helms.

Both Bush and Helms would go on to victory, and these ads are credited with paving their paths. Hynes is playing with similar fire, but rather than invoke race as a wedge issue to polarize the electorate along racial lines, he is seeking to dislodge a key demographic of the Democratic electorate, African-American voters, from supporting Quinn and perhaps moving his way in the late stages of the campaign. Hynes capitalizes on the martyr status of Harold Washington in Chicago's black community to undermine the credentials of Quinn.

Hynes' fourth quarter Hail Mary Pass will either be caught miraculously in the corner of the end zone for a last second victory, or veer off course and be intercepted by Quinn. In all likelihood, the negative campaigning practiced by both camps will further dilute an already anticipated scant turnout next Tuesday, as voters choose between "bad," "ugly," or "none of the above." The victor will emerge bruised and battered for the nine month general election campaign to follow and be considered by most as the "lesser of two evils."

Note: The McCormick Freedom Project is a nonpartisan organization that engages in educational activity and does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.